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Word Play: The trials of winning a book award

January 23, 2011|By Sonja Bolle | Special to the Los Angeles Times

Many in publishing rejoice when a "small" book — one that has not been touted as a frontrunner or garnered a lot of attention — receives an important award. Those rejoicing, however, never include the people in the book's actual publishing house, who are desperately scrambling to make copies of the book available during the short window of public interest that follows an announcement.

When Clare Vanderpool's "Moon Over Manifest" (Delacorte: $16.99, ages 9-12) was announced as the winner of the John Newbery Medal for outstanding contribution to children's literature on Jan. 10, it was quite a trick to find a copy to read. Obviously the first printing of the book, published in October, had run out.

Local independent bookstores could take an order and promise to phone when the book arrived; Amazon listed it, day after day, as shipping "in 6-10 days"; and the clerk who answered at my nearest Barnes and Noble declared "Moon Over Manifest" — could there be a less compelling title? — "not in the system."

Library users being always on the ball, the local branch offered to put me No. 44 on the waiting list, while interlibrary loan listed every free copy as "in transit."

The publishing trades made much of the fact that NBC's "Today" show, which normally does a spot on the winners, "snubbed" the library awards this year. But outside of the publishing business, which would keep track of such things, the last time most people might remember media coverage of a Newbery winner was in 2007, when a word rarely seen in a children's book — "scrotum" — appeared on page 1 of Susan Patron's "The Higher Power of Lucky." (Of course, there was also some excitement about last year's winner, Neil Gaiman, whose status as a graphic novelist lends him a certain sexiness that reaches into the new-media realm.)

I finally broke down and borrowed a friend's iPad to download a Kindle version. It's the first time I've considered the superiority of an electronic edition to one I can hold, smell and leaf through. By Jan. 19, books had been printed, bound and rushed out to stores, and "Moon Over Manifest" is finally the hot commodity it should have been almost two weeks ago.

And what a sweet, old-fashioned read it is, truly a book for book lovers. The Newbery Award is given by a committee of librarians; this year, when fantasy and the supernatural are all the rage in children's fiction, four of the five Newbery finalists were historical novels, and two — including the winner — are set during the Great Depression.

"Moon Over Manifest" is an intricate story about storytelling, a tale that loops back on itself, in which memory, old letters, newspaper clippings and the curiosity of a younger generation slowly reveal a small town's buried secrets. It has a wonderful surprise ending — and is exactly the kind of book that can stand on the Newbery shelf, that couldn't possibly excite big media coverage, and can only grow by word of mouth, by being passed from one passionate reader to another.

***

One of the Newbery finalists, "One Crazy Summer" by Rita Williams-Garcia (HarperCollins/Amistad: $15.99, ages 9-12), was also the winner of the Coretta Scott King Award recognizing an African American author of outstanding books for children and young adults.

"One Crazy Summer" tells the story of three sisters sent to spend a month in 1965 with the mother who abandoned them. The girls, raised in Brooklyn by their father and their strict Southern grandmother, reunite with their mother in Oakland, where she is living in a Black Panther community. She has styled herself a poet of the revolution, and she is living on the hard edge of the Civil Rights movement, as well as under what any feminist will recognize as the "Room of One's Own" dilemma: How can a woman burdened with family make art?

The most moving passage in this beautifully told book may be the last sentences in the acknowledgments, where the author writes: "I wanted to write this story for those children who witnessed and were part of necessary change. Yes. There were children."

Williams-Garcia's narrator is 11-year-old Delphine, an observant, generous child accustomed to being a good mother to her little sisters. She is also burdened by the constant vigilance necessary to avoid being "a disgrace to the entire Negro race." She is torn between loyalty to her hard-working father and her increasing understanding of her mother and the politics of the Panthers.

The Civil Rights movement, like World War II, continues to provide material for novels because it continues to pose relevant questions. Shouldn't we, as a society, have figured out by now how to lift from our children's shoulders the burden of negotiating racial tensions?

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